Transwar Asia. Ideology, Practices, and Institutions, 1920–1960

Hofmann, Reto; Ward, Max
SOAS Studies in Modern and Contemporary Japan
London 2022: Bloomsbury
Anzahl Seiten
240 S.
€ 103,50; $ 103.50
Rezensiert für H-Soz-Kult von
Frank Jacob, Social Sciences, Nord University

Certain dates are often used as watersheds to retrospectively mark the end of old or the beginning of new historical periods. Jubilees also play an important role in such reconfigurations and sometimes in further extending of such periods, although they also seem to “haunt” the work of historians who often try to catch up with the next coming jubilee instead of spending more time on in-depth research that is unrelated to such issues.1 Due to the centennial of the First World War, it is now considered in some regions of the world that the war lasted beyond 1918 until, as some authors have argued, 1923. This reframing is related to new research and the attempt to understand what George F. Kennon has coined the “seminal catastrophe of the 20th century” beyond the four years of war between 1914 and 1918. In fact, many historical events are better understood when they are not considered as limited interruptions or changes within the course of history, but contextualized in a broader sense.

The volume Transwar Asia: Ideology, Practices, and Institutions, 1920–1960, edited by Reto Hofmann and Max Ward, presents such a recontextualization of Asian history in the named period, and it “proposes ‘transwar’ as an analytical category to understand” (p. 1) the latter better. As Takashi Fujitani remarks in the volume’s afterword, all chapters “trouble the simple triumphalist narrative that locates 1945 as the moment of historical rupture that remade Asia and the world” (p. 195). In their introduction, the editors emphasize that it is their “goal to explain some of the important developments in policies, thought, and culture in the 1950s and 1960s not only as outcomes of the Second World War and the collapse of the Japanese Empire, but by situating them within a historical continuum reaching back to the 1920s and the problems that first emerged in those years” (p. 1), e.g. economic and nationalist expansionism. They consequently challenge the interruption of the Japanese Shōwa period and its division into pre- and post-1945 eras, which has been used in many historical works before2, while also offering a broader view of developments in Asia from the 1920s until the 1960s. To them, the post-war period “appear[s] less a legacy of – or response to – war and empire and more as a chapter in a longue durée of problems that shaped the world and Asia during this complex period” (p. 1). The concept of “transwar regimes” is supposed to “capture … temporal reformulations and spatial negotiations” in Asia during that time period, while “regimes” are understood by the editors as “not only political-economic formations but also a wider array of processes extending to cultural, intellectual, social, and artistic realms, and which together conferred on the transwar period the historical dynamics that distinguished it from what came before and what came after” (p. 2).

As such, the volume offers a broad variety of approaches to trace these “transwar regimes” which show that 1945 was not as much of a divide for Asian history as has previously been assumed (p. 3). The volume’s aim, namely, “to explore the nuanced transformations of policies, institutions, and ideas starting with their initial inception in the 1920s to their reformulation for war in the 1930s as well as for postcolonial and postimperial nation-state formation in the early years of the Cold War” (p. 3), is consequently approached from different angles in the respective chapters. Victor Louzon (pp. 49–76), for example, traces the impact of Japanese wartime mobilization in Asia and its role in the nation-state formations that followed in the aftermath of the Second World War. Other continuities, e.g., the use of Japan’s colonial rice system in Korea during the post-WWII American occupation (Yumi Moon, pp. 17–48), are supposed to emphasize the existence of certain structures or elements from the pre- to the post-war period to show that 1945 was in no way a real watershed for the lives and experiences of the people living in Asia. David Bourchier (pp. 147–168) also shows that certain philosophical debates that originated in the 1920s played an important role in Asia in the decades after the Second World War, while some political discourses of the early Cold War in Asia, as Brian Tsui (pp. 125–146) shows with regard to Taiwan in the 1950s, were closely related to questions that had long been discussed before.

The variety of chapters, which might at first seem overly diparate in terms of topics and regions, actually makes the volume highly intellectually stimulating, as the diversity of the chapters demonstrate the possibilities of the proposed transwar perspective. The chapters show that 1945 is less of a caesura in the East Asian context than it has been perceived as in the past, and that it makes sense to take a broader look at the historical developments in the region. The diversity of the chapters thereby highlights the volume’s integrative approach that relates the different national histories in the region to each other and shows some of the similarities concerning the “transwar” dimension it is advocating. The volume is therefore able to achieve its claim as it “conceptually refine[s] transwar as a historical category, with particular emphasis on the enduring problems that underwrote the intellectual, political, and cultural regimes of Asia between 1920 and 1960” (p. 5). Although the reconceptualization of time periods seems sometimes more artificial (i.e. historical) and thereby follows certain historiographic trends, a process which in itself is somehow questionable, the book’s argument is reasonable and well presented. The volume is therefore highly recommended to scholars of Asian history and Asian studies more broadly, but equally so to historians who deal with methodological questions of historiography and the conceptualization of history in general. Hofmann and Ward’s volume offers new critical insights into four decades of Asian history, during which the experiences of the Second World War were not a temporal interruption but rather must be understood as links of continuity between the region’s pre- and post-war periods.

1 Johannes Helmrath, Das Reich: 962–1356–1806. Zusammenfassende Überlegungen zur Tagung ‚Die Goldene Bulle‘, in: Ulrike Hohensee et al (eds.), Die Goldene Bulle. Politik – Wahrnehmung – Rezeption, Vol. 2, Berlin 2009, pp. 1137–1151, here p. 1138.
2 To name here just one example, Japanese author Handō Kazotoshi has used 1945 as a caesura for his two-volume history of Shōwa Japan. Handō Kazotoshi, Shōwa shi, 1926–1945, Tokyo 2004, and Shōwa shi, 1945–1989, Tokyo 2009.